Nearly all schools teach art, music

Music and visual art are nearly universally available in public schools, writes Robert Morrison, founder of Quadrant Arts Education Research, in School Band & Orchestra Magazine.

The data hasn’t changed much since 1994 for music and visual art. Dance and theater instruction has declined in secondary schools and is rare in elementary schools.

Ninety-one percent of elementary schools employ specialist music teachers, according to a federal report.

Via Common Core.

College shouldn’t be only K-12 goal

Higher education shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of K-12 education, writes “edu-traitor” Cathy Davidson, an English professor, in an Inside Higher Ed commentary.

Higher education is incredibly valuable, even precious, for many. But it is bad for individuals and society to be retrofitting learning all the way back to preschool, as if the only skills valuable, vital, necessary in the world are the ones that earn you a B.S., BA, or a graduate and professional degree.

Many jobs require specialized knowledge, intelligence and skills, but not a college education, Davidson notes.  Yet our educational system “defines learning so narrowly that whole swaths of human intelligence, skill, talent, creativity, imagination, and accomplishment do not count.”

Schools are cutting art, music, P.E. and shop to focus on college prep, Davidson complains. (I’d say schools are cutting electives — especially shop — to focus on basic reading and math skills.)

. . . many brilliant, talented young people are dropping out of high school because they see high school as implicitly “college prep” and they cannot imagine anything more dreary than spending four more years bored in a classroom when they could be out actually experiencing and perfecting their skills in the trades and the careers that inspire them.

We need value “the full range of intellectual possibility and potential for everyone,” Davidson writes.

The brilliant, talented kid who drops out to pursue a passion for art, carpentry or cosmetology is a rare bird, I think. But Davidson is right about the college-or-bust mentality in K-12 education. Many students who are bored by academics could be motivated — maybe even inspired — by a chance to develop marketable skills.

Some 80 percent of new community college students say they want to earn a bachelor’s degree. They sign up for remedial or general education courses.  Few succeed.  Students who pursue vocational goals — a welding certificate, an associate degree in medical technology — are far more likely to graduate.

Secret school success

We’re not all going to hell in a hand basket, argues Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. ”The last 15 years have seen tremendous progress for poor, minority, and low-achieving students — the very children that have been the focus of two decades of reform.”

 . . . For instance, between 1990 and 2009, black fourth graders made 35 points of progress on the mathematics NAEP exam; black eighth-graders gained 24 points. The corresponding numbers for Latino children were 28 and 21 points respectively. In reading, black fourth-graders gained 13 points between 1992 and 2009; black eighth graders gained 9 points. In the just-released geography exam, black fourth-grade students gained 28 points between 1994 and 2010; Latino fourth-graders gained 21 points. Similar progress was seen in history and civics.

This means low-income and minority students are “achieving one, two, and sometimes three grade levels higher than their counterparts in the early 1990s were,” Petrilli writes.

What happened? States that adopted accountability systems made big gains in the ’90s and “the stragglers made big progress once No Child Left Behind forced them to follow suit,” he argues.

NCLB doesn’t hold schools accountable for history, civics, and geography; neither do most states. But “poor and minority kids are stronger readers now, so they can better read the social studies exams and answer more questions correctly,” Petrilli theorizes.

The debate should be about trade-offs, he writes. Poor and minority kids are learning more, but their schools may be turning to scripted lessons and squeezing out art and music. Poor and minority kids are learning more, but principals and teachers have more incentive to cheat on tests. “Poor and minority kids are learning more, but their more affluent, higher-achieving peers are making fewer gains. Is it worth it?”

Babies prefer Picasso

Babies prefer to look at Picasso paintings, whether they’ve been exposed to Picasso or Monet, University of Zurich researchers have found. 

(Trix) Cacchione’s team looked at a whole range of factors: Picasso’s use of vivid colours, sharp contours, and his use of squares and other figurative elements (Monet pictures, by contrast, are more subtle and realistic). But each time the researchers removed one of these elements, for example by using black and white pictures of the paintings, the babies still preferred Picasso.

The most likely explanation then is that it’s something about these elements in combination that appeals to babies.

Or it could be luminance or “perceived lightness.”  Babies may find it easier to see Picasso’s paintings because they’re more luminant than Monet’s.

Learning from Finland

Finland’s schools rank very high in international comparisons.  The secret is highly trained, well-paid teachers and few standardized tests, writes Samuel Abrams in The New Republic.

Today, teaching is such a desirable profession that only one in ten applicants to the country’s eight master’s programs in education is accepted. . . . High school teachers with 15 years of experience make 102 percent of what their fellow university graduates do. In the United States, by contrast, they earn just 65 percent.

In first through ninth grade, Finnish students take art, music, cooking, carpentry, metalwork, and textiles.

Instead of standardized testing for all students, the Finns give exams to a small sample of students.

Teachers in Finland design their own courses, using a national curriculum as a guide, not a blueprint, and spend about 80 percent as much time leading classes as their U.S. counterparts do, so that they have sufficient opportunity to plan lessons and collaborate with colleagues. The only point at which all Finnish students take standardized exams is as high school seniors if they wish to go to university.

Ability tracking doesn’t start till 10th grade.

Finland’s schools don’t fit Abrams’ agenda that neatly, responds Quick and the Ed’s Kevin Carey.

For example, Finnish teachers don’t make more than U.S. teachers. Finnish doctors, lawyers and other college graduates make less money.

It’s true that only 10 percent of applicants are accepted by Finnish teacher education programs, he writes. But . . .

I have never, ever heard a serious proposal from the anti-testing / school of education crowd to raise admissions standards into teacher preparation to anything approaching the levels that would result in a 10 percent admission rate — or, heck, a 50 percent admission rate.

The only U.S. program that sets the bar that high is Teach for America, which Abrams “predictably critiques.”

Finland has a national curriculum and administers a high-stakes national test to seniors who wish to go to university, Carey writes. Here, each state sets its own standards, which aren’t enforced.

I’ll add that most U.S. schools do not track students by ability before 10th grade or after, though there’s de facto tracking in high school. For that matter, U.S. students do a lot of art and music in elementary and middle school, though they’re less likely to have access to shop classes, cooking or sewing.

There’s a lot we can learn from Finland’s very successful schools, Carey writes. “But anyone arguing that the evidence from Finland cleanly supports either side of the American education reform debate is being dishonest,” he concludes.

‘Food for Singles’ or French?

California students must take an arts class or a foreign language to graduate from high school, but a bill on the governor’s desk would let students choose a career course instead. The sponsor, Assemblyman Warren Furutani, D-Gardena, hopes the option will engage students who might otherwise drop out.

Common Core, which strongly opposes the idea, looks at Granada High School, where vocational options include:

* Hospitality to “learn grooming and proper work ethic.”

* Fashion Apparel to “learn sewing machine basics.”

* Landscape Design to “grow flowers, ornamental plants and vegetables.”

* Food for Singles to learn culinary “short cuts, new techniques, budgeting their food dollars, and multiple uses of appliances.”

“Education is about more than workforce preparation,” Common Core argues. “It’s about building creativity, wonder, cultural literacy and citizenship, for starters.”

California’s college-prep curriculum includes arts and a foreign language. However, the students who’d prefer “Hospitality” are not planning to apply to a state university.

The problem I see is that the bill includes no funding to develop high-quality  classes that would prepare students for real careers, most of which will require some additional training at a community college or in an apprenticeship program. Potential drop-outs might be motivated by Cooking for Chefs. It’s hard to believe anyone sees Food for Singles as a reason to stay in school.

Old toys as art

Mom threw out your old toys? Artist Allen Innman creates nostalgia on canvas, writes If It’s Hip, It’s Here:

Art as salvation or education?

Arts education is being sold as a way to “save” unmotivated students, writes Mark Bauerlein, a veteran of the National Endowment for the Arts,  in Education Next. If the arts aren’t valuable for their own sake and for all students, they’ll lose out.

If you want to advocate a field, you have to justify it as a discipline. It has to form a body of knowledge and skills that students study at least partly for its own sake. In the case of the arts, a graduated curriculum would incorporate technical skills and art history and theory, just as English language arts integrate literacy skills and the lineages of English, American, and world literatures. Yes, arts learning may have social and moral and professional benefits, but if people don’t value the materials of the fields themselves —if they can’t say that if High School X doesn’t acquaint students with Renaissance painting, classical music, and modern dance, its graduates will be undereducated — then arts educators lose in the competition for funds and hours in the day. Arts education remains an extracurricular, and school administrators focused on math and reading can push it aside: The arts are fine, so let kids who are interested in them study in an afterschool program like band practice.

As head of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia told staffers that  arts education should enable students to encounter “lasting works of force and beauty.”

Gioia insisted that “Learning in the Arts for Children and Youth” grant recipients must “apply national or state arts education standards,”  and assess whether students were learning those standards — not just whether they enjoyed themselves or participated.

Gioia also developed initiatives such as Shakespeare tours,  American Masterpieces and Poetry Out Loud, a competition in which high-school students memorize and recite a poem from a list of classic and contemporary poets.

The content of art and artistic tradition was at the center of each initiative. When Gioia first unveiled Poetry Out Loud, some state arts officers protested because it didn’t allow students to present their own compositions. Gioia’s reply was, in effect, “That isn’t what the competition is about.” With this particular effort, he wanted to encourage more reading of great poems, not more writing of adolescent verse.

As editor of my high school literary magazine, I applaud the last sentiment. (When I was in college, the editor of  the literary magazine, Dana Gioia, rejected my submission. Still a little bitter.)

In my school days, we didn’t study works of force and beauty. We drew bad pictures in art class and sang in music. There was no dance class. Drama was a high school elective, though we all read lots of Shakespeare.

My daughter had a dab of cultural history in a humanities class. I vaguely recall her writing about how a work of art — Kandinsky? — made her feel.

With the exception of music, which still requires hitting the right notes, the arts are seen as a way for kids to be creative — with no “wrong answers” — not as a discipline to be mastered.

Politicizing the arts is the easiest way to kill arts education, Bauerlein writes in a blog post.

All art, all the time

From Katharine Beals‘ book, Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World, comes the story of a middle-school boy named Josh who tells his father, Ben, that he hates his highly regarded math-science magnet school.

Ben pulls out several sheets and pages through: “Design a Playground,” “Decorate a Tissue Box,” Construct a Diorama.”

“That’s a lot of art homework,” remarks Ben. “What about your other subjects.”

“Dad, that’s the point,” yells Josh. “These are for my other subjects.”

“Which ones?” Ben pages back through. Everywhere the same phrases keep popping up: “Be colorful.” “Be creative.”

“All of them. “Math, English, German . . . The tissue box is for German.”

Ben looks again: “Decorate a box of tissues with German words, drawings, etc. Pick the vocabulary from chapters 1 or 2, and use those words to decorate your box of tissues. Put the number of the chapter you’ve chosen on your box also.”

. . . Ben turns to the next page: “Construct a diorama illustrating the climactic scene of your novel.”

“That’s for English,” Josh says. “The playground’s for math. That last sheet is for science.” He reaches for the folder, pulls out one more page, and hands it to Ben: “Write a three-page paper that includes a description of a movie, television show, or a book that involves a scientific concept, a summary of the scientific concept, and an explanation of the relationship between the actual concept and how it is used in the movie, television show, or book.”

Josh dislikes arts and crafts and is not big on writing. He likes math and science.

The German tissue box assignment seems to have been created by a teacher with a shortage of tissue paper.

Via Catherine Johnson of  Kitchen Table Math.

Boy suspended for 'violent' sketch of Jesus

An eight-year-old boy was suspended and sent to a psychologist for evaluation because he drew a “violent” picture of Jesus on the cross, reports the Taunton (MA) Gazette.

A second-grade teacher at Taunton’s Maxham Elementary School had asked children to draw something that reminded them of Christmas. The boy drew a stick figure of a man on a cross, probably inspired by a recent family visit to a Christmas display at a Christian shrine.

“I think what happened is that because he put Xs in the eyes of Jesus, the teacher was alarmed and they told the parents they thought it was violent,” said Toni Saunders, an educational consultant with the Associated Advocacy Center.

Superintendent Julie Hackett said an outside evaluation is required when there are “particular concerns about a child’s safety.”

A psychologist, hired at the parents’ expense, found the boy poses no safety threat. But the second grader found it hard to return to school, the father says. The district has agreed to transfer the boy to another elementary school.

Via The Corner.

The school district said the boy wasn’t suspended, though it hasn’t disputed he was sent home till he could get a psych exam. The district also says the photo circulated isn’t the one that upset the teacher and that the teacher didn’t tell kids to draw a picture of something that reminded them of Christmas (or any other religious holiday).